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Biometric State
The Global Politics of Identification and Surveillance in South Africa, 1850 to the Present


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  • Date Published: October 2016
  • availability: Available
  • format: Paperback
  • isbn: 9781107434899

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About the Authors
  • Biometric identification and registration systems are being proposed by governments and businesses across the world. Surprisingly they are under most rapid, and systematic, development in countries in Africa and Asia. In this groundbreaking book, Keith Breckenridge traces how the origins of the systems being developed in places like India, Mexico, Nigeria and Ghana can be found in a century-long history of biometric government in South Africa, with the South African experience of centralized fingerprint identification unparalleled in its chronological depth and demographic scope. He shows how empire, and particularly the triangular relationship between India, the Witwatersrand and Britain, established the special South African obsession with biometric government, and shaped the international politics that developed around it for the length of the twentieth century. He also examines the political effects of biometric registration systems, revealing their consequences for the basic workings of the institutions of democracy and authoritarianism.

    • Explores how the region and institutions of Southern Africa have served as sites for global experiments in biometric identification and biometric government
    • Shows that the origins of biometric experiments in South Africa lie in long-distance links between individuals and institutions with earlier histories in India, Britain and the USA
    • Identifies a new form of state emerging amongst former European colonies, which speaks to debates across political science, sociology, surveillance studies, development economics and development studies
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    • Winner, 2017 Humanities Book Award, Academy of Science of South Africa

    Reviews & endorsements

    'This fascinating and deeply researched study of the transnational politics of biometric measurement and surveillance places South Africa in a global field force of scientific and technological experimentation. Beginning with Galton and Gandhi, it shows how the power of technology can be deployed for many different reasons, and often with surprising outcomes.' Saul Dubow, Queen Mary, University of London

    'Keith Breckenridge, one of South Africa's leading historians, has written a fascinating, highly original social archaeology of the 'biometric state' … A magisterial work whose scope covers two centuries and many parts of the planet, it explains, counter-intuitively, why South Africa is the most advanced of such states in the world today, why it is a laboratory, in this respect, for other nations. By dint of its thoughtful scholarship, the book compels us to rethink the future history of states everywhere.' John Comaroff, Harvard University, Massachusetts

    'A perceptive and provocative study, full of ideas and punchy arguments, that casts new light on the global dimensions and political continuities of South Africa's identification state before, during and after apartheid. Breckenridge not only disentangles this intricate history but embeds it in a fresh account of how colonial and post-colonial states have been seduced by the siren-song of technological solutions to political problems.' Jane Caplan, University of Oxford

    'Brilliantly, Breckenridge sees South Africa as a 'global laboratory for biometric government'. This highly engaging and consequential analysis traces the vital links between colonialism and contemporary surveillance, provocatively placing biometrics and the state in some unfamiliar but compelling relations with each other. The lights keep coming on, to the very end of the book.' David Lyon, Queen's University, Ontario

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    Product details

    • Date Published: October 2016
    • format: Paperback
    • isbn: 9781107434899
    • length: 266 pages
    • dimensions: 230 x 153 x 15 mm
    • weight: 0.4kg
    • contains: 3 b/w illus. 1 map
    • availability: Available
  • Table of Contents

    Introduction: the global biometric arena
    1. Science of empire: the South African origins and objects of Galtonian eugenics
    2. Asiatic despotism: Edward Henry on the Witwatersrand
    3. Gandhi's biometric entanglement: fingerprints, Satyagraha and the global politics of Hind Swaraj
    4. No will to know: biometric registration and the limited curiosity of the gatekeeper state
    5. Verwoerd's bureau of proof: the Apartheid Bewysburo and the end of documentary government
    6. Galtonian reversal: apartheid and the making of biometric citizenship
    Epilogue: empire and the mimetic fantasy

  • Author

    Keith Breckenridge, University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg
    Keith Breckenridge is an historian and the deputy director of the Wits Institute for Social and Economic Research at the University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg. He has published widely on the cultural and economic history of South Africa, particularly the gold mining industry, the state and the development of information systems. His writing on biometrics has appeared in Africa, History Workshop, the Journal of Southern African Studies, Public Culture and some of the most influential comparative anthologies on systems of identification. In 2012 he co-edited Registration and Recognition: Documenting the Person in World History, with Simon Szreter, a volume of essays for the British Academy examining the workings and failures of civil registration in twenty different regions and periods around the world.


    • Winner, 2017 Humanities Book Award, Academy of Science of South Africa

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